This morning, the Department of Justice announced that it is releasing $20 million in funding to help local and tribal police departments get their hands on body cameras.
But, while some see hope in the effort, there’s one serious obstacle in the way before it makes an actual impact on policing. The reason why is wholly contained in the following sentence, taken from the release:
The costs of data storage is the single largest obstacle that local governments face in implementing body cameras. Last December, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, whose city is now under fire for allegations of police brutality, vetoed a bill that would have required police wear body cameras. (The obvious irony being that if body cams were worn by police, some of the mystery surrounding the death of Freddie Grey could have been minimized.)
City officials estimated that the cost of managing the data from the body cams would run as high as $2.6 million annually. At the time, Rawlings-Blake told the press that she agreed with body cams in principle, but voted against it out of budget concerns.
"Knowing how we didn't have a lot of wiggle room with the budget constraints we face, we couldn't afford to get it wrong," she later said of the move, according to the Associated Press. "Any time you do something on this scale, if you don't take the time up front, you are setting yourself up for failure and disappointment from the community."
On the flip side, the city of Baltimore has paid out $11.5 million in police misconduct settlements over the last four years, found a Baltimore Sun/ CBS investigation released late last year.
Other major cities have paid out astounding amounts as well. The New York Police Department paid $428 million in police misconduct settlements over a recent five year period, found an investigation from Muck Rock, at an average cost of $33,875 per case.
Body cam footage could ostensibly bring down that expense, as evidence could help support an officer's account of events in some cases.
“Body-worn cameras hold tremendous promise for enhancing transparency, promoting accountability, and advancing public safety for law enforcement officers and the communities they serve," said attorney general Lynch in a statement released this morning.
That is true. But in order to realize the technology's potential, the costs of data storage need to be made more manageable, or cities need to fundamentally reevaluate how they allocate city funds, in a new balancing act between expected settlement costs and data storage costs.
This morning's announcement is a positive step towards nudging local departments to get on board with a growing technological movement, but the Department of Justice cannot possibly change the whole body cam ecosphere on its own.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.